First, a disclaimer: 2016 wasn't exactly when these ideas first came to light. Many of them have been talked about for years. But they're on this list because entrepreneurs and organizations made some significant advances this year toward making them a reality. Check them out--and then let us know in the comments what you'd add to the list.
1. You won't need to own a car.
Love the idea or hate it, there's no denying that we're hurtling toward a future of self-driving cars. What became more clear in 2016 is that for many, this future won't entail owning those vehicles. Uber, which rolled out fleets of autonomous test cars in Pittsburgh, presented a vision of a suburbia that's just as connected as cities, with self-driving taxis ferrying people across town or shuttling them to transit hubs. Elon Musk revealed that the forthcoming Tesla Network will let owners turn their cars into autonomous money-making cabs when they don't need them and teased six-to-eight-seat buses that could pick people up and drop them off without a driver. Google, meanwhile, revealed that it wants to develop the software for autonomous taxis by 2017.
As those companies and others improve their technologies, in theory the roads will not only become safer, but they will also become less congested. Google spinoff Sidewalk Labs asserts that the onset of self-driving taxis would mean fewer parking spaces and driving lanes, and more green areas, thus putting everyone within a short walk of a park.
2. Scientists will eradicate certain diseases by manipulating DNA.
What if you could remove the genes in your body that makes you susceptible to heart disease or cancer? It might not be as far fetched as it sounds. Though the first research on CRISPR ("clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats"--essentially, repeated DNA sequences) was published in 2012, a number of health science companies helped push the gene editing tool more into the public eye in 2016: Intellia Therapeutics and Editas Medicine, which went public earlier in the year, as well as Caribou Biosciences, which closed a $30 million round in May, are all based largely on using CRISPR.
By deleting rows of DNA and pasting in new ones, scientists can conceivably remove unwanted genes. When applied to plants, the tool could help vegetation grow in otherwise barren--and hungry--parts of the world. When applied to humans, the potential might be even bigger: Doctors in China claim to have successfully used the tool to make non-viable human embryos resistant to the HIV virus. In the U.S., human trials are expected to begin within two years, with cancer cells being removed from patients and replaced with healthy ones.
Of course, this all opens the door to some moral ambiguity: What if parents want their children to have blue eyes, or to excel at math? Should the technology prove viable for humans, years of regulatory debate will be sure to follow.
3. Alternative energy finally becomes affordable--and attractive.
It's hard not to like the idea of sustainable energy, but liking the idea and wanting to pay for it are two very different things. Luckily, advances in technology are helping bring costs of renewables toward those of fossil fuels--so much so that Google, which uses enough annual energy to power all of San Francisco, announced that it will offset its carbon footprint 100 percent by paying for sustainable energy starting in 2017. (The company will use primarily wind energy, which lets it budget its costs better, since wind prices don't fluctuate like nonrenewable prices do.)
Meanwhile, the aesthetics are changing, too: Tesla's solar roofs, unveiled in November, collect solar energy but look just like normal roofs when viewed from street level. The company claims that when the product rolls out in 2017, the installation cost will be the same as that of a regular roof--eliminating a huge point of resistance for consumers.
And renewable energy startup Solar Roadways announced in September that it's covering the parking lot of a Missouri rest stop with durable solar panels. That means the four million miles of roads in the U.S. could someday double as energy-producing cells that sell power to energy companies and citizens. If the government can find another way to monetize its roads, it's hard not to imagine it jumping at the chance.
4. Citizens will receive a salary just for being alive.
The cruel, well-documented side effect of automation is that the machines make many human jobs expendable. Manufacturers across the U.S. have already seen jobs replaced by machines. Self-driving cars and trucks, like the one from Otto that recently completed a 120-mile beer delivery, could render two million jobs obsolete. A recent report by Forester found that 6 percent of all jobs will be replaced by automation within five years
During the past year, governments around the world have ignited a debate about one solution for grappling with so many job losses: universal basic income, by which all citizens get monthly or yearly payouts. While the idea was proposed to and rejected by Swiss voters, France and Canada both approved pilot tests. Finland approved a two-year experiment in which, beginning next year, 2,000 randomly selected unemployed citizens will get monthly checks. One of the underlying hopes is that, with essentials like food and shelter provided for, they'll be more apt to take risks and pursue business ideas--which could turn into companies that help invigorate the stagnant national economy.
The rather obvious counterpoints: Universal basic income would cost governments billions (or trillions!); and it might encourage complacency. But those arguments might lose their potency if the jobs keep disappearing. Musk, himself a proponent of artificial intelligence and automation, admits that universal basic income is an inevitability.
5. Your commute will involve a vacuum-sealed tube instead of cars or airplanes.
The magnetic levitating pod known as the Hyperloop has been hyped as the high-speed rail of the future--a way to travel between fairly distant cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco without needing to step on a plane. While that benefit would be impressive enough, the biggest potential impact could be from the plan laid out by Hyperloop One this year.
In October, the startup unveiled its proposal for a rail in United Arab Emirates that would take passengers from Dubai to Abu Dhabi--a 100-mile journey--in 12 minutes. The company envisions self-driving pods that would cruise around the streets, picking up passengers who hail them via an app, then take them to the Hyperloop station and whisking them away in a vacuum-sealed tube.
Those looking to make the trip would be less business trippers, weekenders, and sightseers, and more everyday commuters--and the cost would be in the $15 range. The company, which has $140 million in funding, successfully completed a small-scale test run in Nevada in May and already has an agreement in place with the UAE government for a feasibility study.
Geography and politics likely will make the Hyperloop impossible in many places. But a venture that wants to give everyday citizens hours of their lives back each day? That deserves to be taken seriously.